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Sisters Darcy Dobson, Molly O'Brien, Michaella O'Brien and Katie Devine arrange flowers and painted rocks left by mourners at the vigil to their mother, Heather O'Brien, where the nurse was killed by a gunman along the highway in Debert, N.S. in April, on May 3, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

It had become tradition in recent years for Heather O’Brien’s daughters to give her gift certificates for the local garden centre each Mother’s Day. Her back deck in Masstown, N.S., was a floral sanctuary, teeming with Bordeaux wave petunias and the quiet whir of hummingbirds.

But this year, as Ms. O’Brien’s six children and two stepchildren mourn the loss of their mother, they are the ones planting flowers, in her memory, on the side of the road in Debert, N.S., where the 55-year-old took her last breath.

“Where the garden is, is the last place our mother was physically on this earth,” said her daughter Darcy Dobson. “It’s an important place. There’s therapy in gardening and I think she knew this, too, which is why she did it for so long, especially after losing her own mother.”

As the homemade cards fade and bouquets of flowers wilt at roadside memorials for the 22 people killed in the worst gun massacre in Canadian history, families and community members are finding more long-lasting ways to pay tribute to the victims.

For Ms. O’Brien’s loved ones, that’s a raised garden with a heart-shaped rock at the centre, surrounded by planted purple pansies, hyacinths and tulips.

'Where the garden is, is the last place our mother was physically on this earth,' said her daughter Darcy Dobson.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A bench placed at the site is painted her favourite colour, green – from the same can their mother had used on her beloved deck at home. The soil was donated by a local business.

On Sunday, as Ms. Dobson and her three sisters visited the garden, she admitted they weren’t sure exactly what to plant or when, given the lingering frost. “My mom is the one who knew all of that,” she said.

But as the sisters tidied, and organized some painted rocks and other mementoes that had been left there by mourners, the birdseed they scattered drew a pair of chickadees, which seemed just right.

"Mom’s gardens were always so welcoming and calming. The sound of all the birds in the feeders also providing a soothing effect while sitting enjoying the gardens. I will miss being able to sit and chat with her on her deck surrounded by the beautiful flowers,” Katie Devine, another daughter, said. “I’m hoping this new garden will provide us some comfort in the days and years to come. A special place for not only her children, but our father and her 12 grandchildren.”

In the midst of their own grief, the family has also planted a second heart-shaped garden, about 100 metres away, in memory of Kristen Beaton, a fellow nurse who was also killed on that road in the shooting on April 19.

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“We would do anything we could for the Beatons or anyone else who was touched by this tragedy as they are the only people who can truly understand,” Ms. Dobson said. Ms. Beaton’s husband, Nick, posted to Facebook when he learned about the garden, saying that he was moved by the gesture.

In the interconnected rural communities of Colchester County, no one has been left untouched by the tragedy, and many are similarly looking for ways to ensure the victims are never forgotten.

One woman is drying chrysanthemums, roses and carnations left at the sprawling roadside memorial in Portapique to make into jars of potpourri for the victims’ families. Maja van den Hoek spread flower heads on cookie trays, hung roses to dry in her furnace room, and melted and molded tiny, paraffin wax hearts to add to the mixture at her home in Upper Economy, about 25 minutes from Portapique.

“You want to reach out and have them know that the community is behind them and cares for them,” Mrs. van den Hoek said. “I thought they might like it, I hope.”

A community group from West Colchester is setting up a non-profit to benefit the children of those lost. The Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society wants to provide educational bursaries in memory of the victims, build a permanent memorial, co-ordinate grief counselling and support community development in communities affected by the tragedy.

Another group in Lower Onslow made up of four generations of one family, community members and local businesses teamed up to donate materials and money to build memory benches for each victim of the massacre. Each bench features a coloured plaque designed with photos and images important in the life of that person.

Sharon McLellan, Shirley Shipley, Shelley Johnson and Daina McCallum build benches to give to families of the shooting victims, in Lower Onslow, N.S. on May 1, 2020. Through donations of time, money and materials from residents all over Colchester County, N.S., the family has begun building the benches in memoriam.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

“I just thought it would be nice for them to have somewhere to sit and reflect back on the memories of them,” said Mary Brown, a local real estate agent who came up with the idea.

A bench for Greg and Jamie Blair, a young couple from Portapique, shows them smiling and mud-spattered, standing next to a utility vehicle with their arms around each other.

A bench for Ms. Beaton shows her as a beaming bride on her wedding day. The bench also has a tiny blue heart – a tribute to the baby she was carrying when she was killed.

Another bench bears a smiling photo of the Tuck family. The bench also shows a violin, which 17-year-old Emily – who was killed along with her parents Aaron and Jolene – loved to play. And it has a small Ford logo for Aaron, who was a mechanic. Emily was his apprentice.

A bench placed at the memorial site for Heather O’Brien is painted her favourite colour, green – from the same can their mother had used on her beloved deck at home.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The deadly rampage began with a violent assault by the 51-year-old gunman on his common-law wife, in the beachfront community of Portapique on April 18, and ended more than 13 hours later with 22 people dead.

“I just don’t want them to be forgotten,” said Shelley Johnson, as she helped carry a freshly stained bench she helped make. “We’re just looking to create some memories for the family that aren’t quite so painful.”

With a report from Darren Calabrese

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